Eric LeGrand's Tragedy: Stories and Lessons Learned As a Rutgers Freshman
I'm a lucky man. Why?
I get to go to the greatest school in the world, Rutgers University. It may not be the highest in many college rankings, but there is no school that could be better for me.
It's a school that takes in 39,000 students. It embraces differences and takes anyone for whom they are. It provides every one of those students with any opportunity imaginable and provides the tools for students to achieve their dreams.
While its size makes it great, it can also be a drawback. It's easy to feel small as a freshman at Rutgers. One of the ways I get myself out there to feel like I'm part of something greater is the football games.
It's a fun tradition to go out on Saturdays, await the knight and his stallion trotting onto the field and scream your head off when the Scarlet Knights come out of the tunnel.
One of the games I attended was a strange one, the home game at the Meadowlands, rather than Rutgers Stadium. It didn't feel right not being in the student section, sitting in roomy seats rather than standing on crammed bleachers. There wasn't the same spirit as a game at Rutgers Stadium.
That game would become infamous for junior defensive tackle Eric LeGrand, the game that made him known for a reason that could not have been worse. Eric was paralyzed.
The incident left everyone with all the negative feelings that can be named. But Eric has only inspired since his first interview on Friday with SportsCenter. Through my experiences as a Rutgers freshman and hearing and seeing Eric's story, I have learned lessons that no other experiences could provide.
That semester started as any would for a college freshman, with equal feelings of excitement and confusion.
On move-in day, I hung up my three posters. They were posters of the Celtics, Kramer from Seinfeld and the band Queen. I hung up those posters because they truly expressed my individuality and who I was. For most of grade school, I was quiet around basically everyone besides my friends. But towards the end of high school, I decided to stop making compromises with my personality. It made all the difference.
The posters were one expression of my individuality, the other was my decision to go to Rutgers. I lived in Boston my whole life, but I decided to go to a school where only six percent of the students are from out of state. But I didn't make decisions based on what other people told me to do. I did not want to follow the crowd either. I wanted to do what was best for me.
The poster that's most important to me is my Queen poster. Not just because their music is amazing, but also because lead singer Freddie Mercury was one of the most inspiring people I had never met. He died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1991, but still gave his all until the day he died. He also never let his homosexuality hinder him because it made him who he was.
That poster was only fitting for a school that embraced differences.
The First Tragedy
A fellow freshman I never met, Tyler Clementi, was an in-the-closet homosexual who had sex with another guy in his dorm room. As a prank, his roommate and his roommate's friend filmed Tyler without him knowing, and the video was distributed over the Internet. After Tyler found out that there was a video and that it had been spread, he took his own life
This was the first news story that ever brought me to tears. It was difficult enough making a transition to college life, but it seemed much harder with this tragedy occurring a month into my freshman year.
It disturbed me that just because a student is different, they could be deemed inferior. Tyler became a joke to his roommate because of his identity.
Since I was a freshman as well, this story hit hard. I wondered how someone could do something so mean, but there was nothing I could do.
Even at a big school like Rutgers, the loss of a single person had an effect on every student. That was the first time I sensed togetherness amongst the students. There were candlelight vigils and more.
One of the events I was a part of was the football game after his death, on October 2 against Tulane. The students' clothing generally made the stadium a piercing red. But everyone was advised to wear black to bring awareness to Tyler's tragedy.
The game still felt somber though, since Tyler was gone. No matter how much the students came together, it would never bring him back.
The Second Tragedy
The game after was less depressing. The student body was recovering from the first tragedy. Everyone was just ecstatic for a Friday night ESPN Big East opener against UConn.
The atmosphere, true freshman quarterback Chas Dodd's coming out party and the comeback meant so much at such a dark time. When Rutgers beat one of the Big East favorites, I was the happiest I had been since coming to Rutgers.
I was giving high fives and hugs to everyone around me, even people I did not know. That win taught me what being a Scarlet Knight was all about.
The next game came at the Meadowlands against Army, which gave Rutgers problems all game. It was hard to watch the underdog upset the Knights. But something else came that was much harder to watch.
After Eric made a great play tackling the Army kick returner, he laid there. It must have been at least five minutes he was on the ground, but it felt like forever. I was asking the people around me, "Why aren't they helping him up?"
My questioning must have been the only noise in the stadium when Eric laid motionless. When he was taken off the field, it was clear that this was more than a regular injury.
The game didn't matter. Football didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Only No. 52 mattered. Like Tyler's incident, I felt bad that all I could do was feel sorry for the victim and the Rutgers community. But that reaction didn't feel good enough.
The Aftermath of Football
Rutgers football consistently came out with uninspiring efforts after losing Eric. No one could blame them either.
They lost all six of its remaining games. I can't help but believe that Rutgers would have won at least a couple of those if Eric was still walking with them.
This was a team that was expected to make a bowl, a team that made its impression by upsetting UConn on national TV to open up conference play.
The only excitement at the remaining games usually only came from pre-gaming or the occasional lead that would be blown later. None of it seemed to be important.
Eric was not only important for his contribution on the field. He was important because when he could no longer play, the spirit of Rutgers was gone. Gone was the excitement at football games. Gone was hope.
Football was something I used to escape my stresses of school, but all the talk of Eric's problem only made me sad for him. But like all of Rutgers, the football team had troubles they could not escape, which were greater than football itself.
The Aftermath of Number 52
There was an unbelievable amount of support on the Rutgers campus for Eric.
Bracelets were sold everywhere on campus, and 100 percent of the profit went toward Eric and his family. At my dining hall, there was a sheet of paper that must have been about 15 feet long, where students could write messages to Eric.
It made me happy to see that Big E received so much awareness. It was nearly impossible to walk outside my dorm and not see the number 52 or the word "bELieve," with Eric's initials emphasized.
Eric's condition was still a concern for me though. I would look for updates on him far more than anyone else in Rutgers sports. He was given odds of zero to five percent of being able to use his neurological muscles again. Now he has feeling in his hands.
It was inspiring that Eric could overcome such devastating odds. I believe that one day he will walk again, and it is a motivation to all that he has the drive to play football again, whether that will be possible or not.
Just because Eric couldn't use anything from his neck down, there was still so much more to him. His drive that got him to college football in the first place was still there, and he was going to do everything possible to overcome his obstacles.
On Friday, Eric had his first public interview with SportsCenter. I was astonished at not only his accomplishments after paralysis, but also his attitude during the whole process.
I no longer felt bad for Eric. He still has so much to live for, and I am grateful that he realizes that.
College football motivated him. He had more motivation than most of us will ever come close to attaining. Football was extremely important to him, and it should be important to us too.
Both Rutgers tragedies were very de-motivational. But I couldn't let it distract me from my goals at Rutgers.
In the future, I hope to become a sportswriter. It's an extremely competitive field, so I need to work very hard. The competition can't be encouraging for my parents, who are paying most of my out-of-state tuition, but luckily they've encouraged me the whole way.
Some people think sportswriting is an unimportant job. People who do not follow sports generally have the attitude that news is the only "real journalism." And when I tell people I'm interested in journalism, they sound interested. Then I tell them I want to do sports and the smile often wipes right off their face.
But I feel like sportswriting is truly what I was meant to do. The conception that sports was unimportant always aggravated me, but I could never explain why it was important. Thanks to Eric, I now know why.
Sports are something that helps people overcome obstacles. There are more obstacles than just beating the other team. There are matchups that don't show up in the box score, such as Zach Greinke against anxiety or Michael Vick against a society where everyone turned against him.
Eric is now facing the idea that he cannot be what he once was. Because of the characteristics he utilized in sports, he has the drive and the positive attitude necessary to prove everyone wrong about what he can do.
An athlete's attitude is not just important for themselves though. It spreads to everyone. When Eric was taken off the field, everyone's spirits went down, but the steadily rose as his motivation for himself spread like a good virus to everyone.
An athlete had the power to affect everyone's attitude at a 39,000-person school. Tyler's suicide did the same thing. Eric and Tyler taught me that no matter how many people there are, you affect everyone you come across.
Take It's a Wonderful Life, where the protagonist George Bailey finds out that if he was never born, bad things would have happened to everyone around him. I can only hope that Eric knows how much he has touched people on a real and much broader scale.
Eric has reinforced a value in me and hopefully everyone else that nobody should make compromises with who they truly are. Everyone should pursue their dreams. Only the individual can know what's best for them and if they don't, they will never find out of they don't pursue their dreams. But they must work as hard as possible to make those dreams come true.
Just like Freddie Mercury of Queen, Eric is doing all he can to get past his tragedy. As Freddie sang in his last song, "I'll face it with a grin. I'm never giving in. On with the show." Obstacles are inevitable, but the show must go on.
It is not the great masses at Rutgers that make the school amazing. It is each individual that brings something different to the table that make Rutgers the greatest school in the world. Eric and Tyler are not the only ones who have changed Rutgers. Every single student has in a major way.
Sports are important because they are an extremely influential method of making the impact that every student makes. Eric hopefully realizes that he is such a big influence and he has positively impacted so many people. Hopefully others realize that they make this impact through their interactions.
So Eric has taught me to be an individual and do all I can to achieve my goals. I have learned about the influence of sports and why they are important. I have learned about how each individual also carries the same importance to a number of people they cannot comprehend.
But most importantly thanks to Eric, I remember why Rutgers is such a great school. It's amazing because there are lessons learned here that cannot be learned anywhere else.
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